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Europe

Belgium Wearily Heads Back Into the Political Labyrinth

The sudden resignation of Belgium's prime minister has plunged the country back into a political crisis. There are signs that Belgians are beginning to despair after 18 months of political paralysis.

In 2007, thousands of Belgian citizens gathered in the streets during a 'March for Unity'

The country's political parties remain fragmented

"Christmas greetings from the banana republic called Belgium."

The text message arrived on this correspondent's mobile phone on Monday, Dec. 23, sent by a Belgian friend not normally characterized by her interest in politics.

And it put into words a widespread feeling of weariness and deja-vu as the country found itself looking for a government for the fourth time in 18 months, with experts predicting no quick exit from the political maze.

"It all leads to one conclusion: finding a government under the Christmas tree looks like a Christmas fairy tale," French-language daily Le Soir wrote on its opinion page on Tuesday morning.

Political paralysis to continue

Map of Belgium

Belgium remains a country divided

The current crisis began a week ago, when allegations emerged that Prime Minister Yves Leterme had put pressure on an appeals court to permit the dismemberment of stricken banking giant Fortis -- Europe's highest-profile victim of the current financial crisis.

Leterme offered to resign on Friday. Belgium's King Albert II accepted his resignation late on Monday, tasking former premier Wilfried Martens, 72, with an "exploratory mission to find a quick solution to the current crisis," according to a palace statement.

In itself, it is no more than the kind of political scandal which has broken across Europe dozens of times in the last few decades.

But it comes after a year and a half of political paralysis which has left many Belgians shaking their heads in despair.

A nation divided

Belgium's Prime Minister Yves Leterme

Prime Minister Yves Leterme is on his way out

Belgium is a federal kingdom divided between the wealthy Dutch-speaking province of Flanders, in the north, and the poorer, French-speaking province of Wallonia, in the south.

Its political parties mirror that divide, with conservatives, liberals, socialists and greens all split into separate Dutch- and French-speaking entities with their own rules, finances and feuds.

Ever since national elections on June 10, 2007, those parties have been at loggerheads over the question of how to divide power and, crucially, money between the language communities.

Leterme's Flemish conservatives, who want more power for their region and fewer subsidies going to Wallonia, won the election and the dubious privilege of forming a coalition government.

But in 174 days -- a national record -- of acrimonious talks, Leterme failed to hammer together an alliance with enough French-speaking parties to make a viable coalition.

Three "Wise men" searched for a way out

Downtown square in Brussels

Brussels' tranquil streets belie the political turmoil

On December 17, 2007, the king asked outgoing premier Guy Verhofstadt to run the country while Leterme continued talks with his political rivals.

Those talks finally bore fruit in March, when five Dutch- and French-speaking parties agreed to a grand coalition under Leterme. He took office on March 23 -- Easter Sunday -- and vowed to solve the question of the division of power by July 15.

But on that day, the feuding regions were no closer to a solution. After less than four months in power, Leterme offered to resign.

Rather than accepting the resignation, the king told him to focus on economic and social issues, and tasked three senior statesmen with finding a way out of the morass of inter-communal rivalry.

Those three "wise men" made their report on September 19, proposing that 12 top politicians, six from each side, hammer out the details of a national reform to balance the demands of the regions.

Looking to a political heavyweight

People walk by the Fortis Bank headquarters

The government was seen as botching the Fortis bank bailout

But before the new, expanded group had time to make its proposals, Leterme's government succumbed to the Fortis scandal, leaving the king to look for yet another political heavyweight to lead the country out of crisis.

Given the bitter emotions now running high on both sides, commentators say that not even the appointment of the veteran Wilfried Martens, who presided over 10 governments between 1979 and 1992, is enough to light the way out of the maze."The appointment of Martens can mean nothing else than that we need a cooling-off period. We can forget about the quick re-start which we need to get through the crisis," Dutch-language daily Het Nieuwsblad wrote.

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